Friday, April 10, 2009

Do you like your liberty?

Easy question, right?

How about this one: do you like the death penalty?

Or: Do you like the death penalty for other people? Especially poor people?

Then maybe this story should interest you.

The key to protecting all of us from government power is the right to trial by jury, and the Founding Fathers recognized that the right to trial by jury is a hollow right without the effective assistance of counsel. It's right up there in the Bill of Rights.

So the story. Despite the slight unpleasantness they had in the past (reminder: there was a period when as many people were released from Death Row because they were innocent as were actually executed), they still have the death penalty in Illinois.

Sure, you're still supposed to have a trial, and be convicted by clear and convincing proof, and the state has to meet enhanced constitutional protections before the death penalty is issued,

But that only works if your lawyer can afford to defend you.

In a novel legal move, court-appointed attorneys for a man charged in a double murder want the state barred from seeking the death penalty because a state fund to pay for the defense of capital cases has run out of money.

Without the funds, Assistant Public Defender Marijane Placek said, her office would be unable to pay for the help of expert witnesses, depriving her client, Brian Gilbert, of an adequate defense.

Gilbert is charged in the 2007 fatal stabbing of his girlfriend's two sons, Marquise, 12, and Quinton Jackson, 14, after a quarrel over housework.

Death penalty cases can take more than five or six years to go to trial, twice as long as typical murder cases. After more than a dozen Death Row inmates were exonerated by DNA and other evidence, death penalty reforms were passed earlier this decade, boosting the cost of capital cases even further. In response, state lawmakers established the Capital Litigation Trust Fund to defray the additional costs.

In a motion filed Wednesday, Placek informed Circuit Judge Thomas Gainer Jr. that the public defender's annual allotment in the fund had been used up. She wrote that Gilbert has a long-standing, severe mental illness and that the case will require a massive amount of work to prepare for trial.

"We have no money to defend the death penalty," Placek said Thursday in an interview. "And for this reason, our client can't get a fair trial."

Why is this important? I think it's important that everybody get an adequate defense, but let's get past that: Everybody needs access to an adequate criminal defense. Everybody is a potential criminal defendant. And not everybody is poor enough to qualify for the public defender, but hardly anyone can afford to hire a lawyer for a major criminal charge, death penalty or no.

So if you know a public defender, thank him or her: they're protecting all our rights.


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